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WellPoint seeks more Obamacare biz by extending deadline

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Two of the largest U.S. health insurers are giving Obamacare customers more time to pay their initial premiums as the industry tries to coax millions of people to take the final step in cementing coverage for 2014.

WellPoint Inc., the second-biggest U.S. health insurer, said it’s allowing consumers until Jan. 15 to pay, five extra days than planned. Health Care Service Corp., which runs Blue Cross plans in Texas, Illinois and three other states, extended its deadline to Jan. 30, saying it wanted to avoid confusion.

Insurers and the Obama administration have repeatedly moved deadlines, relaxed sign-up rules and made other concessions to smooth the process for people who are getting new health coverage this year as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The industry had already pushed back the premium deadline from late December until Jan. 10, following website outages that depressed sign-ups last year.

“Our goal is to ensure our members can access their benefits as early as possible in 2014,” Kristin Binns, a spokeswoman for Indianapolis-based WellPoint, said in an e-mail. “To make that happen and to accommodate the late December application surge we will not be rejecting any January policies where payment has been received by Jan. 15.”

About 2.1 million people enrolled in private medical plans through Obamacare’s government-run insurance exchanges. Most of the sign-ups came in December as the online marketplaces rebounded from software flaws that hobbled their October debut.

‘Too early’

The effort to get people to pay their premiums suggests the enrollment figures may end up lower than the initial report, said Dan Schuyler of Leavitt Partners, a Salt Lake City-based consultant to state-run exchanges.

“In the end, the only number that’s relevant is the number of consumers who have picked a plan and paid, and I think it’s too early to prognosticate on what that’s going to look like,” he said in a telephone interview.

For most Americans, March 31 is the final deadline to enroll in an exchange health plan for this year.

HCSC and WellPoint aren’t alone in allowing more time. Kaiser Permanente, which covers 9.1 million people in eight states, has extended its premium deadline until Jan. 15, as have state-run exchanges for California, Oregon and Washington.

Humana Inc. will accept payments through the end of the month, Tom Noland, a spokesman for the Louisville, Kentucky- based insurer, said in an e-mail.

Significant payments

WellPoint, which offers plans in 14 states, declined to say how many new enrollees have paid their bills so far. Chicago-based HCSC, the fourth-biggest U.S. insurer by enrollment, has received “a significant number of payments,” Greg Thompson, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Customers must pay the first month’s premium before the company will process their medical claims, he said.

“At a time when many people are learning about new products and responsibilities of being a new policy holder we wanted to give people additional time in January to plan and budget for potentially new household expenses,” Thompson said.

Any lag in premiums is partly President Barack Obama’s fault, after repeatedly pushing back deadlines, Schuyler said. The U.S.-run healthcare.gov website offers coverage in 36 states. The remaining 14 states handle their own markets, some with their own schedule for payments, adding to the confusion, he said.

The administration supports “efforts to provide flexibility and help consumers make a smooth transition” to their new coverage, Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in an e-mail. “We look forward to continuing to work closely with issuers to help as many Americans as possible secure quality health coverage.”

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